Be the dog: efficiency v. effectiveness in embracing the individual

My last post, a while ago, involved my musings of occupying the middle: the idea that we should start using and rather than or and start embracing both ends of a spectrum rather than choosing between them. Today I thought more about a specific spectrum:

Efficiency ⇔ Effectiveness

Of course, we always want to be both efficient and effective. But sometimes it can feel like we are choosing between the two. At this time of year, with IB Diploma exams bearing down on the students in their final year, I feel I have spent the past couple of weeks waffling between the two ends, debating between the necessary efficiency of getting through the last few learning objectives in a chalk-and-talk way and effective teaching that engages students more in the discovery process which I know will lead to better engagement with ideas and long-term retention.

I felt caught between, “OK, last two weeks before revision time, let me just teach you the content that you will need to know to score well on the exam” and “Wait, I know if I teach you explicitly these three studies for this particular syllabus objective you will be able to answer the essay question, but you really won’t have a true grasp of something as complex as ‘Why relationships may end or change’.” Yes, that’s an actual, very compelling and interesting, learning objective from IB Diploma Psychology. Which I taught in two 60-minute lessons.

And this dilemma does not only arise at the end of the course; in fact, it is a daily balance that educator must maintain both in the classroom and in leadership roles.

Today during a short and impactful workshop with the thought-provoking Kevin Bartlett of Common Ground Collaborative and Kelly Armitage of International School Bangkok, they showed two adorable videos that I felt really brought this to a conundrum to a metaphorical epiphany for me:


And so I find in education, often I have to remind myself, “Be a dog. Not a cat1.”

The cat was far, far more efficient. It took her 11 seconds to get her compatriot down the stairs whereas the dog took 9 times longer to get the puppy down the stairs. If the goal was to get to the bottom of the stairs fastest, the cat won by a long shot.

But it’s pretty obvious where this analogy brings us, right?

If we want students to succeed, and we want educators to help them do so, we have to have a shared understanding of success, and therefore how we get there. If education is about giving students skills to do it themselves rather than simply getting to an arbitrary end point (e.g., university admissions, report card grades, honor roll) that we have defined as educators and parents as fast as we can, then we have to rethink how we do so effectively rather than just efficiently.

In fact, a great deal of the education system is built around efficiency, not effectiveness. A lot of the practices that we see in place despite all the research out there telling us to do the contrary is because it was built on models of industrial efficiency, in which we cater to the ‘average’ student to get him through a standardized set of expectations in a standardized set of time as efficiently as possible.

Recently I read a phenomenal book, The End of Average by Todd Rose, which laid out a fascinating history of how we came to define ourselves by the average and build systems around it. Rose then makes a compellingly simple argument that no one is average and that instead, we need to replace averagarianism with the science of the individual.

In my Psychology class, when I taught ‘Why do relationships end or change?’ in 120 minutes, I did so by imparting a standard set of information to all 15 students. Information that I knew would serve them well on the examination if they would just remember it and write about it in the standardized way that I knew would match the standardized markscheme. I did so knowing that some students could answer the question at levels of sophistication much higher than what I was teaching, some students couldn’t understand everything I was explaining, and that none of them, really, were learning exactly at the level at which I was pitching it — the average. But I did it anyway. For the sake of getting through the learning objective, I taught to the average, and thus really taught to no one. I accepted that with the course drawing to a high pressure end, I had to be efficient. I gave the students a cat-like push.


This is an incredibly frustrating reflection on my own practice. Why did I do that? Why did I teach in a way that contradicts my fundamental beliefs about learning?

This frustration scales up. Why do we as educators continue to do things that we know all the research tells us to do to the contrary? Why do we assign grades when we know they are meaningless for learning? Why do we put students into groupings by their year of birth rather than their ability or passion? Why do we do chunk the school day into short periods of learning sequenced by timetables rather than purpose? Why do we chunk the school year by the agrarian calendar? In each and every one of these instances, and so many others, the answer is not one we know we don’t like but don’t know how to change: because it’s the most efficient way to get the average student through the system.

Fortunately, in The End of Average, Rose offers an antidote to the trap of the average: the science of the individual. In the book, he outlines three simple principles:


Infographic from CBC Books

In the dog video, we can see each of these principles at play:

The jaggedness principle – that while the puppy is terrible at going down the stairs, he’s probably really good at something else, like being unbearably adorable.

The context principle – that while the puppy may be able to walk fine on floors, he has not yet mastered the stairs. He is not inherently a ‘bad walker,’ just in this particular context.

The pathways principle – that the puppy would eventually get to the bottom of the stairs when he was ready.

By embracing each of these principles, we can make the shift from average to individual, from efficiency to effectiveness. This needs to happen at every level of education. In the classroom, I need to challenge myself to remember each of these principles when designing and delivering learning from my students. As a school leader, I need to challenge myself to remember each of these principles when making contributions to school-wide decisions about students, teachers, and learning. As an individual, I need to remember these principles while deciding on my career path and defining myself as a human.

Every day, whether for my student, my colleagues, or myself, I need to remember: be the dog.


1 I have to note that I love cats and the cat video made me laugh out loud. I have been co-habitating with a cat named Bangle for the last six years. The process of teaching her how to go to the toilet (literally) was a process that could not be efficient – I had to work on her timeline – but was in the end effective. And now I am known as that lady with the cat that pees in toilets. 

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